Two Dane County judges, deciding together, ruled Friday that former UW-Madison student Alec Cook, who is accused of sexual assault and harassment of female students, will be tried outside of Dane County, citing intense media coverage and publicity that the case has received that would make it too difficult to find impartial jurors in Dane County.
Agreeing to a rarely granted change-of-venue motion, Circuit Judges Stephen Ehlke and John Hyland said that Cook’s lawyers, Chris Van Wagner and Jessa Nicholson Goetz, have shown that there is a “reasonable likelihood of community prejudice” that is so strong that it precludes the possibility that Cook can receive a fair trial in Dane County, according to the judges’ five-page decision, issued Friday.
Ehlke is hearing six of the seven trials set against Cook, while Hyland is the presiding judge in one of the cases.
Cook, 21, of Edina, Minnesota, was charged last year with 12 counts of varying degrees of sexual assault involving six women, along with several other charges that include stalking, disorderly conduct and false imprisonment. Prosecutors allege that 11 women have been the victims of sexual assault or harassment by Cook.
His case has been broken into seven trials, the first of which is to begin before Ehlke on Feb. 26. Work will now begin to determine where the trials will be held. During arguments Thursday, some of the locations mentioned as possibilities were Dodge County, Jefferson County or Monroe County, which Ehlke noted has a nice courthouse.
Van Wagner and Nicholson argued that pervasive pre-trial publicity has made it impossible to choose an impartial jury in Dane County. At a motion hearing on Thursday, state Assistant Attorney General Christopher Liegel countered that knowledge of the case is so widespread throughout Wisconsin that no matter where a jury is picked, a percentage of jurors are likely to have heard of the case, so keeping the cases in Dane County and carefully vetting jurors would be just as effective.
Van Wagner said Friday that the decision shows that Ehlke and Hyland “have taken steps to make sure that Alec Cook will be tried fairly,” by a jury that is free of outside influences.
“As Cook’s attorneys, we view today’s ruling as an important win for Alec Cook but as a very important win for the notion that in America, people can still get a fair trial, and that people can still have their fate decided by a jury based on actual evidence, not on rumor, innuendo, social media rants or search-engine-seeking headlines,” Van Wagner said in a statement.
In their decision, Ehlke and Hyland said that anyone who lives in Dane County “has probably seen or heard numerous stories in the news media about this case. Coverage of this case has been extensive.”
Social media has accentuated the coverage the case received, the judges wrote. They described initial coverage of the case as “intense,” and while publicity has ebbed somewhat, “coverage of this case did not cease after the initial flurry of media coverage. Instead, it continues unabated by the passage of time, and will undoubtedly increase as trial approaches.”
Ehlke and Hyland also wrote that the seriousness of the charges facing Cook weighed in favor of having it heard elsewhere.
State Supreme Court rules, cited Friday by District Court Administrator Theresa Owens, state that her office would work with the trial judge and court clerks of counties involved to ensure that a proposed county has the staff, juror and facility resources to accommodate the request.
Scheduling arrangements are confirmed once a court in a new county is chosen, according to the rule.
Ehlke and Hyland will decide later whether certain evidence against Cook will be suppressed. Cook’s lawyers want the judges to throw out a notebook belonging to Cook that was seized by police, because police learned about it during an October 2016 search of Cook’s apartment that was done with Cook’s permission. Police then got a search warrant from a judge that allowed them to take the notebook.
Cook’s lawyers argue that examining and photographing the notebook during that initial search exceeded the bounds of consent to search that Cook granted police.